Google probably wishes it could be forgotten as the remit of its legal obligations continues to make headlines
The press has been full of news this year about the deluge of requests sent to Google following the Court of the Justice of the European Union (CJEU)’s ruling in May, which confirmed the right of individuals to request the removal of certain online search results affecting their privacy (the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ or ‘right of erasure’). In recent news is the story of the settlement of a claim brought in the English High Court against Google in respect of defamatory comments posted on many websites by an anonymous individual appearing in Google’s search results. The claimant was a businessman previously living in the UK but now resident in Hong Kong, who had been the victim of what has been described as an “exceptional case of internet trolling in terms of its prominence and volume“.
Due to the settlement, the High Court did not have the opportunity to address the right of an individual to prevent the appearance of certain abusive online material about them in online search engine results. Had the court given a judgment ruled against it, Google might (rightly) have feared a surge in requests from individuals. While details of the settlement have not been disclosed publicly, however, counsel for the claimant told the court that it involved significant efforts by the US search engine to remove abusive material from websites it hosts and from its search results.
In related news, Google has found itself under fresh pressure from the influential European Article 29 Data Protection Working Party (DPWP) to expand the right to be forgotten to its Google.com site. At present, visitors are diverted to localised editions of Google’s search tool when they initially try to visit the Google.com search tool. However, a link is provided at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen offering an option to switch to the international version. This means it is possible for European online users to avoid censored entries with relative ease.
The Working Party has said in a press release issued on 26 November that, “[I]n order to give full effect to the data subject’s rights as defined in the (CJEU) ruling, de-listing decisions must be implemented in such a way that they guarantee the effective and complete protection of data subjects’ rights and that EU law cannot be circumvented […] In practice, this means that in any case de-listing should also be effective on all relevant .com domains”.
Interestingly, the DPWP focuses in its press release on referring to “the de-listing of links appearing in the search results based on a person’s name”, as opposed to mentioning the right to be forgotten (or erasure) by name. This may be a response to criticism by some – including the recent report of the UK’s House of Lords’ European Union Committee about the CJEU’s judgement – that such terms can be misleading, and therefore result in misunderstanding about the potential for information online to disappear, when in reality it can only be made more difficult to access.